Bust of Herodotus / Wikimedia Commons
Herodotus is the “Father of History” and—according to some—also the “Father of Lies.” As a discipline, history begins with Herodotus’ Histories, the first known systematic investigation of the past. Explicitly, The Histories deal with the Persian Wars, the Greeks’ double defeat of the formidable forces led against them by the Persian kings Darius and Xerxes, but Herodotus’ work includes much more than just the narration of that conflict. It encompasses geography, gossip, gods and even a bit of arithmetic. A master storyteller, Herodotus won an audience for history not only in his day but for all time. Since he invented history, no century has passed without a historian to record it.
I. Introduction: Herodotus and the Birth of History
A. Who Was Herodotus?
Our understanding of the cultural and political forces which gave rise to the Classical Age of Greece (479-431 BCE), a watershed in Western Civilization, rests largely on the work of one remarkable individual, an ancient Greek merchant named Herodotus. Unfortunately, very little is known today about his life. He was born, we are told, in Halicarnassus, a coastal city in southwestern Asia Minor (modern Turkey), probably around 485 BCE and, to judge from the fact that he doesn’t appear to know about events in Greek history after the early 420’s, his death probably occurred no later than 425 BCE. Besides that, we know little about the man himself, other than that he most likely spent a significant amount of his life in Athens where his Histories proved quite popular.
So far as we know, he also wrote only one work, The Histories, a lengthy investigation of the Persian Wars (490-479 BCE), the epic struggle between the much smaller Greek city-states of the West and their foe to the East, the enormous Persian Empire. Herodotus not only documented this pivotal moment in Greek history—the course of all subsequent European civilization would have been far different if this war had gone in Persia’s favor—but The Histories also stand as the earliest known example of historical investigation in this part of the world, the West’s premiere attempt to research its past. With that, Herodotus has been dubbed “the Father of History.”
The Histories reveal a few other things about the man who wrote them. For instance, if his date of birth is even roughly correct, Herodotus was a child during the Persian Wars and could not have been an eyewitness to most of the events recorded in The Histories, which means his testimony cannot constitute primary evidence. Rather, he must have traveled around the Mediterranean world asking people questions, a type of historical investigation called oral history. From that, he attempted to formulate a coherent story of the events which had occurred before his lifetime and led up to the Persian Wars. Indeed, the very name he chose to give his work attests to this method of research, in that the Greek word historia comes from a base which means “to question, make an inquiry, investigate.” The plural of historia in Greek is historiai and that is the Greek name of Herodotus’ masterpiece, literally “The Questions.”
Moreover, this work also suggests its author’s social standing. That Herodotus more than once mentions prices and numerical information is a strong indication that he had a middle-class upbringing and probably traveled across the ancient world as a merchant of some sort, conducting business while he collected the data that constitute his Histories. This stands in stark contrast to almost all other ancient historians, who tend to come from or be attached to aristocratic families and usually do not mention information about economics or practical details of daily life—common sense dictates that people who don’t work for a living aren’t likely to consider matters of basic subsistence as interesting as those who do—instead, they dwell on issues of philosophy, character and tradition.
Conversely, Herodotus does address the practicalities of life, which makes his work stand out from the rest of ancient history because of its bourgeois, working-class approach to the past. Thus, The Histories are not only the first known work of its type but also embrace a rare and special approach to studying the past. Herodotus’ work is, without doubt, one of the most valuable documents in all of human history.
B. The Invention of History
It’s reasonable to suppose, then, that as he went around doing business in various places, Herodotus asked people about their recollections of times gone by, the traditional tales they’d heard from their parents, grandparents and elders, and using those data, he attempted to formulate a coherent picture of the past. This methodology is well evidenced in The Histories where Herodotus often includes expressions like “The priests in Egypt told me . . .,” an overt declaration that his histories are, at least in part, the product of oral research.
Such pronouncements are followed more than once with sensational stories of some sort—like the tale about the Egyptian king who prostituted his daughter for stones he then used to build his funeral monument—which does little to bolster confidence in their historical validity. More likely, these fabrications originated as propaganda concocted after the fact to discredit a former regime. This demonstrates well the peril of attempting this kind of historical investigation in which the researcher must depend on dubious and unverifiable sources. But if Herodotus were going to write any record of the past, he had little choice but to work from oral histories since in his day the written records of antiquity were fragmentary and often inaccessible to him. The problem with being the first historian in the world is that there aren’t any other histories to rely on. All in all, Herodotus’ account of the past seems burdened with much invented history.
Fortunately, these second-hand fictions, like all invented histories, are not completely without value. Even if they do not leave us with a definitive version of what-really-happened in early antiquity, the fabrications that freckle The Histories record at least the ancient Egyptians’ or Babylonians’ sense of what someone thought should have happened at some point in history. And if it doesn’t even have that much historical basis, it sheds light on their sense of humor, how they had fun making up tales to tell gullible traveling Greek salesmen who pestered them with historical historiai.
Unfortunately, that’s not the only problem for historians trying to use Herodotus’ Histories to figure out what-really-happened around the time of the Persian Wars. More than once, Herodotus encountered sources which conflicted with one another, but then rather than analyzing them and trying to sift fact from fiction, he just dismisses the contradiction with something like “Some people say this and others say that,” hardly the methodology of a scientific historian. To the contrary, he appears to revel in relating whatever shocking story has come his way and looks for ways to thread such material into his work, even if a tale is utterly outlandish—indeed, the more lurid and sensational the tale, the more he seems apt to include it—but especially if it plays into one of his particular fancies, that is, anything that proves the Delphic oracle is never wrong or involves women who are tall and beautiful or exposes the sexual perversity of foreigners. To many historians of our age, such themes and tone do not betoken a serious and professional approach to the study of the past; they are, rather, the casual ramblings of a raconteur.
Thus, the maddening blend of fable and fact, the mess of chatter and moralizing found in Herodotus’ Histories, has earned its author the dubious honor of being dubbed “The Father of History and Lies.” Especially in the nineteenth century when historians sought to cloak their discipline in the trappings of science, Herodotus’ reputation suffered. But if some scholars have deplored his vulgar tactics—and there are those who still do—there are at least as many others, especially folklorists and those working in fields which look at culture more broadly than most historians, who have found in The Histories a trove of cultural wealth. In particular, with the recognition today that the study of history encompasses things which may not fall easily under the rubric of “science,” that paradox and prevarication are endemic to the human condition, and that history as its product must make room for lies, bias and innuendo, many today would agree that “scientific history” is not the only valid way to approach the past and may well be an unattainable and unnecessary dream. To them, Herodotus is a true father.
But for historians of every ilk and disposition, Herodotus did something far more important, something all of them depend on and should be grateful for: he enabled history itself. By making excursions into the past a fun thing to read and listen to, he built an audience interested in the subject. We must never forget that before him there were no historians, no histories, no History Channel! So even if he ranges sometimes into the incredible, his ebullient and captivating style of narrating the past was a crucial element in creating a demand for the discipline itself.
And there was no better place in antiquity to do this than in the markets, bars and hotspots of ancient Athens where intellectually restless and boisterous crowds—the same inquisitive folk who lobbied for advances in philosophy, art and drama—demanded new thinking presented in novel ways, the very sort of “show” The Histories delivered. Indeed, to read Herodotus aloud is essentially to have the world’s best “grandfather” at your bedside weaving you a gripping tale, full of intrigue, exploration and lessons about life. Listening to his work seems designed to make you laugh out loud at the foibles of fools, to weep at the deaths of noble patriots, to swell with pride at human courage and wisdom, to witness the awesome power of the gods, and even to take you on magical trips to faraway lands like Babylon, the grandest city in the ancient world. In sum, Herodotus’ Histories are a comedy, a tragedy, an action movie, a Cecil B. DeMille epic and a tour book, all in one.
It follows then, that, to be all these things, Herodotus’ work is somewhat discursive in its organization, and indeed more than once he wanders off the subject. Although the main thrust of The Histories is to tell the story of the wars between Greece and Persia that took place in the early fifth century, being the natural storyteller he is, Herodotus does not leap to the climax, or even start with the main story. Instead, he backs up in time, all the way to the early days of the Lydian Empire (ca. 650 BCE), well before the Persians conquered Asia Minor and came into contact with Greek speakers and the Persian Wars took place, on the tenuous pretext that he must fill his listeners in on the backstory underlying the conflict he promises to narrate.
While not entirely unjustified, his real reason for doing this becomes apparent, as The Histories unfold. Clearly, Herodotus wanted to relate the many entertaining anecdotes he’d heard which are set in the remote past. By widening his sights to a greater swath of history than just the decade or so of the Persian Wars, he can speculate, for instance, about how the Egyptians built the Pyramids, and report on a debate about what’s the oldest language, and even record the first people known to smoke marijuana. While little of what he says about these things is likely to be exactly correct—for example, he’s dead wrong about the Pyramids—more to the point, all of it is interesting. Nevertheless, starting a history of the Persian Wars with an account of the early Lydian Empire is a little like beginning a history of the American Civil War with a biography of King George III! Yet composing sensible history is not the only goal at hand here, perhaps not even Herodotus’ primary objective. His point is also to make the study of the past enjoyable for his listeners, and the entertainment value of The Histories is amply evident throughout.
C. Gyges and Candaules: The Story of the Lydian Succession
Indeed, the first narrative in The Histories, the primordial piece of Western history if you will, focuses on a palace scandal that took place more than a century before the Persian Wars. Set in Lydia (an ancient state in western Asia Minor), it tells the tale of how the Lydian monarchy changed from the family of the reigning king Candaules—whose roots, according to Herodotus, could be traced all the way back to the mythological hero Hercules—and came into the hands of his servant Gyges. A cocktail of fact and fancy, with ample helpings of sex and violence, this story is just the type of tale to catch the eyes and ears of Herodotus’ public (Histories 1.8-13).
The old king Candaules of Lydia was deeply in love with his wife and believed her the most beautiful woman in the world. He even talked about it openly with his servant, a man named Gyges in whom he confided all his secrets, especially about how pretty he thought his wife was. While it took some time to happen, that was the beginning of his troubles.
One day, he said to Gyges, “Gyges, I don’t think you believe me when I say how beautiful my wife is. Men don’t trust their ears as much as their eyes. What you need is to see her naked!”
Gyges gasped out loud and said, “O Master, what do you mean by saying something perverted like that? Telling me to see my mistress naked? You know, you take a woman’s clothes off and you take off her decency, too! There’s an old saying, a lesson for us all, and something worth thinking about: Mind your own business! Believe me, I believe you. She’s the prettiest woman on earth. But don’t make me do something illegal!” That was his reply. He didn’t want anything to happen he might regret.
But Candaules answered him, “Don’t worry, Gyges. I wasn’t testing you by saying that. And my wife isn’t trying to do you any harm, either. It’s a plan I have, really I do. She won’t even know you’ve seen her. Listen to this! I’ll put you in our bedroom, the one we share, behind an open door. You see, after I go to bed, she comes in and joins me. Near the doorway there’s a chair, where she sets her clothes down as she’s undressing. That’ll give you plenty of opportunity to see her. Then she walks from the chair to the bed. You’ll be behind her, get it? Just don’t let her see you as you find your way out.”
But for Gyges there was no way out, so he got ready. When it was bedtime for the king, Candaules led Gyges into his room, and very soon the queen appeared there, too. She came in and took her clothing off, and Gyges saw her. The woman turned her back and headed for the bed, and he sneaked out quietly—and the woman saw him going out! She knew, too, that it was her husband’s doing, so she didn’t scream or look ashamed or even act like she knew. You see, she, too, had a plan, to pay Candaules back—among the Lydians, it’s true, as well as other barbarians, you hardly ever see a man who’s naked; to them it’s a big disgrace—instead, she didn’t let on at all, just went to sleep.
But first thing the next morning, she called her servants, the ones she trusted best to protect her, and summoned Gyges to her. He had no idea she knew what had happened, so he came when she summoned him. After all, that’s what he always did, when the queen summoned him, came.
Upon Gyges’ arrival, the queen said, “Now there are two ways for you to go here, Gyges. I grant you your choice. Take whichever path you want. One, kill Candaules and take me and the Kingdom of the Lydians. Two, you yourself die right here on the spot, yes, as a lesson not to always heed Candaules or in the future see things you shouldn’t see. Someone has to die, you see: the one who planned this thing, or you, the one who saw me naked and that’s illegal.”
Gyges just stood there amazed for a moment, and after a while began begging her not to make him make a choice like that. It didn’t work. And finally it dawned on him, the fact that he would either have to kill his master or be killed by others. He chose to stick around but asked her first, “Since you’re forcing me to murder my master, something I don’t want, let me hear from you the way we’ll handle it.”
She answered, saying, “From the same spot the attack came, the very place he displayed me naked. When he’s asleep, that’s the way we’ll handle it.” And so they put their plan together.
After night had fallen—now you understand Gyges had no way out of this but someone had to die, he or Candaules, one of them!—he followed the woman to the bed-chamber. And she gave him a dagger and hid him behind the very same door. And later when Candaules had retired, he sneaked up and killed him, taking both his woman and the kingdom, that’s what Gyges did—in fact, it’s mentioned by Archilochus of Paros, who lived at the same time, in a poem he wrote—Gyges took the kingdom of Lydia and ruled, and the reason is the Delphic Oracle confirmed him.
The Lydians, you see, took it very badly—Candaules’ death, that is—and began raising troops. But an agreement was made between the supporters of Gyges and the rest of Lydians: if the oracle confirmed him as the King of the Lydians, he’d rule; but if not, he’d give his command back to the family of Hercules (Candaules’ line). And the oracle did, in fact, confirm him, and so Gyges ruled. However, the priestess of Apollo also said that pay-back would come for the children of Hercules in the fifth generation from Gyges. Of this word, the Lydians and their kings took no note, until, of course, it came to pass.
Clearly, this is not “scientific” history. After all, how could Herodotus realistically know about what happened behind closed doors—particularly the bedroom doors of Lydian royalty!—more than a century before he lived? To be blunt, he—or someone else—made up the story above. It’s an invented history whose basis in truth, if there is any, is buried deep beneath layers of gossip and propaganda.
What is clear is not what-really-happened-in-the-past, but what-Herodotus-and-his-audience-really-liked. Their collective fascination with stories of this sort is, in fact, all too clear, as well as their fixation on foreigners and nobility and especially the erotic excesses of thrill-seeking aristocrats. It’s a situation directly analogous to the modern interest in the escapades of European royals whose purported debaucheries and globe-trotting, wife-swapping ways are the staple of tabloids today.
And so it is from Herodotus, a master of both history and story—not necessarily in that order—in his uniquely provocative, ear-catching way, that we hear of the Persian Wars, a conflict which he casts as a sort of David-and-Goliath encounter in which the Greeks, greatly outnumbered, defeated the Persians against all odds. And there is no better type of history for a story-teller to tell!
II. The Background of the Persian Wars
To follow the course of the Persian Wars and understand their full significance, it’s necessary first to review the history of both Persia and Greece as well as the political and cultural climate leading up to the conflict. After all, to begin things this way is exactly the way Herodotus does in his Histories.
A. The Persians
The Persians lived on the great Iranian plateau, east of Mesopotamia. This immense plain, about a million square miles in size, is bounded by the Indus River on the east and the Zagros Mountains on the west. The Indian Ocean lies to the south and the Caspian Sea and Armenian mountains to the north. A land of contrasts, Persia contains both deserts and fertile river valleys, hot summers and cold winters, mountain highlands and low-lying coastal swamps. It’s rich in minerals and agricultural resources, but through most of early antiquity the people who inhabited it remained impoverished because the land was subject to frequent invasion and conquest due to its abundance of natural wealth.
1. Cyrus the Great
Thus, compared to the ancient civilizations around them like the Babylonians and Egyptians, it took a long time for the Persians to establish their political independence and to rise to prominence. Indeed, the first Persian king of note in ancient history is Cyrus the Great (II) who ascended to the throne sometime before 550 BCE. By then, the Egyptian royal line could be traced back at least two thousand years.
Cyrus began his reign by organizing the Persian Empire and, only after consolidating his realm, did he begin to expand its domain. His first major conquest was that of the Medes, a people who lived immediately to the north of the Persians. Because Media (the land of the Medes) is closer to Greece than Persia, the Greeks confused the Medes and the Persians—Herodotus and most Greeks in his day referred to the Persian Wars as “the Median affair”—which only goes to show how little the Greeks prior to the Classical Age understood of the world around them. Surely, this is part of the impetus that lies behind Herodotus’ Histories, the need to find out more about who’s out there and why they attack.
After securing Media, Cyrus moved to the northwest and subdued Lydia in Asia Minor (546 BCE)—Herodotus uses this conquest as an excuse to begin his Histories with the salacious tale of Gyges and Candaules, cited above—in Lydia, Cyrus’ campaign was famous for its siege of Sardis, the capital of the land. In fact, the mound he built there to take down the city was so large it can still be seen among the archaeological remains of Sardis.
Turning south, he next conquered Babylon, bringing all of Mesopotamia under Persian rule. There, he freed the ancient Hebrews who by then had endured the “Babylonian Captivity” for half a century. In gratitude for the Persian conqueror’s mercy, the Old Testament recalls Cyrus with some fondness but, unfortunately for both, Cyrus died soon thereafter (529 BCE), still in the prime of his life.
His son and successor, Cambyses (II), started off his reign well but, as time passed, turned out to be a mere shadow of the man his father had been. In 525 BCE Cambyses did what very few generals in antiquity were ever able to do: he conquered and occupied Egypt, a land well protected by natural boundaries. But then, smitten with the success of this tremendous prize, Cambyses planned military exploits beyond the capacity of the burgeoning Persian Empire and, in doing so, made the fatal error of failing to consolidate his power base.
The inevitable happened. Rebellion broke out back in Persia and, as the young king was returning to quell it, his own courtiers assassinated him. Thus, like his father, Cambyses died relatively young, but unlike Cyrus, left behind no adult male heir.
A successional crisis ensued, out of which arose a strong and formidable leader, Darius, who ultimately restored order to the Persian Empire. Because he was a distant relative of Cambyses by blood—and his brother-in-law, to boot—Darius was able to stake a claim to the throne, the real merit of which was his strong drive to rule. Nevertheless, he had to spend his first years in power suppressing rebellions all across the Near East and was only acknowledged as king by all Persian subjects in 519 BCE.
Wisely, then, Darius set about not attempting to conquer new territory but instead reorganized his empire into satrapies, administrative districts run by provincial governors called satraps who answered to the king directly. This system would last for nearly two centuries and withstand several political and military crises. The later Romans—and many other conquerors since—have used Darius’ division of his empire into provinces as a model for how to govern an extensive domain.
In another attempt to consolidate his state and government, Darius also sponsored a new religion, Zoroastrianism, which had already begun to rise in popularity before he came to power. At the heart of this belief-system lay a core of myths which feature a cosmic battle between the forces of light and dark. The religion, then, called on worshipers to assist the principal god of light, Ahura-Mazda, in his struggle to defeat the forces of dark. Such “dualism” was attractive to many at the time, among them the Hebrews who during much of the sixth century were enslaved in Babylon. Some scholars suggest that the character called the “Devil” finds its earliest roots here.
Darius also perfected a road system running across the majority of his kingdom, all the way from Sardis in western Asia Minor across two mountain ranges to Susa, a city northwest of Persepolis, the capital of the Persian Empire in southern Iran. Along this highway, known as the Royal Road, were posted elite riders who carried messages back and forth from station to station on horseback, much like the pony express in the early American West. Of them, Herodotus notes “neither snow nor rain nor heat nor dark of night will keep these swift messengers from the accomplishment of their appointed rounds.” In modern times, these words have been used to describe the U.S. Postal Service.
Despite all these successes, not least of which was bringing peace, prosperity and stability to the Persian Empire, Darius failed as king in one crucial regard: conquest. After two decades on the throne, he had subjugated almost no new territory. Herodotus snidely sums up the early rulers of Persia this way: Cyrus was “a father,” Cambyses “a master” and Darius “a shopkeeper.” The heat was on to expand.
B. The Ionian Revolution
The Persians were not, however, the only people growing and trying to stretch the boundaries of their influence. In the wake of the Assyrians’ devastating conquest of Phoenicia in the eighth century BCE—up till then, the Phoenicians had controlled the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea—the Greeks also were beginning to expand their commercial interests and trading network across this region. They had colonized, in particular, Asia Minor (modern Turkey), which brought them into direct contact with the Persians, a confrontation which would ultimately turn violent.
Inhabiting as they did the frontier between the new rising European powers in the West and the huge ancient empires of the East, the Greeks who lived in the southwestern part of Asia Minor, a land at that time called Ionia—hence the people there were called Ionians—were by nature and habit a restless, curious and energetic people at the hub of much intercultural exchange. Besides making improvements in navigation and measurement, they also entertained new and challenging ways of thinking. Principally, out of Ionia in the second half of the sixth century BCE (ca. 550) emerged innovative modes of thought which for the first time in Western history was not expressed in theological terms. This movement was called the Ionian Revolution.
Thus, the Ionians became the first people in Western Civilization to approach the study of nature the way scientists do and began asking questions about the world which still dominate philosophy and science, such as “Where does everything come from?” and “Why does it work the way it does?” To wit, our very word element is a vestige of the debate among Ionian philosophers of this day who argued over which “element”—earth, air, fire or water—preceded and underlay all others. Substitute quark, squark, graviton and Higgs boson, and modern physicists are still deliberating the same basic issue.
Herodotus who came from Ionia can be seen in one way as just another product of the intellectual restlessness infecting this corner of the world. Like his compatriots in the sciences, he sought the underlying nature and causes of things, in this case, what caused the Persian Wars. To him, the real reasons this conflict happened lay in its origins, its “elements,” that is, the background and nature of the peoples who were drawn into the wars. Thus, his Histories, in effect, reproduce the science of his day by applying its principles not to matter but to human beings—how ironic, then, that it is the “scientific” historians of the our age who have as a rule resisted Herodotus’ brand of history—he clearly thought he was making “science” and, by the standards of the day, he was! Yet his was not the only arena to be affected by the new “Ionian” thinking.
C. The Ionian Revolt and the Birth of Democracy
Once established, the new philosophies coming out of Ionia began turning traditional Greek belief structures and social systems upside down, presenting the entire Greek-speaking world with challenges of all sorts. First, formal religion came under devastating fire from the Ionian philosophers. This gave rise to innovative cults like the Pythagoreans, a sect based on the reverence of mathematical principles and dedicated to the exploration of numerical harmonies in nature. The famous “Pythagorean theorem”—the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides—is still an important element in the study of geometry today. In antiquity, however, the discovery of this relationship was a secret long kept hidden by the Pythagorean cult, which regrettably along with aristocratic snobbery about economics helped to stifle the growth of mathematics in the ancient world.
As it so often does, politics soon followed religion. Amidst the inquisition of all things standard and accepted, traditional governments in Ionia and other Greek-speaking city-states started to falter and collapse, their potentates and senior councils unable to meet the challenges posed when free thought is unleashed in a society. Indeed, nothing less than Athenian democracy, the paradigm of all subsequent participatory governments in the West, was born from the conflagration of entrenched regimes as the fire of the Ionian Revolution spread out of its homeland and through much of the Greek world toward the end of the sixth century (515-500 BCE).
All this stood in stark contrast to what was happening in Persia. Now organized under Darius into an efficient bureaucracy of satraps and slaves, the Persian Empire was not at all in tune with the sorts of changes rolling over and out of Ionia. To the contrary, the Persians dealt best with conventional, authoritarian states like their own, where potentates and gods—or, better, potentates as gods—held sway, not elected councils of philosophers who sat around debating the nature of nature and made decisions amidst a storm of elemental particles. The collision of these particular strong forces was an inevitable product of their colliding worlds and world views.
And so it happened. 500-499 BCE turned into one of those moments in history, like 44 BCE in Rome or, more recently, 1939 in Europe, a year when everything simply exploded. All the turbulent currents that churned beneath calm-looking waters suddenly surfaced and threw society and government into chaos. The maelstrom of social and political unrest became so intense that still today it isn’t clear exactly what precipitated the chaos which erupted in Ionia around 500 BCE. Indeed, even in the city of Athens, our best source for history in this age, it’s impossible to say precisely what occurred at the end of the century (508-501 BCE). The Athenian records have been lost or were intentionally destroyed—if they ever existed at all—of those tumultuous years.
This much we do know: the Athenians were somehow at the heart of it all. Infected like many Greek city-states by the Ionian revolutionary bug, they had ousted their ruler, a tyrant named Hippias, the decade before (510 BCE). Within a year or two of that, power was handed over to the popular assemblies—before then, these assemblies served largely in an advisory capacity—and from that mayhem, the Athenians somehow forged a democracy. Then, as if to return the favor to their Ionian brethren, the Athenians sparked a political upheaval back in the homeland of the revolution itself. Ionia, too, fell victim to the virus of “mob rule”—that’s the literal meaning of “democracy” (demokratia) in ancient Greek—and what had begun as a new way of looking at physics was now a global plague of anti-tyrannical flu.
In 500-499 BCE a political movement to oust all tyrants from the city-states of Ionia began to grow, but from a very unexpected source. One of the reigning tyrants himself, Aristagoras of Miletus—Miletus is a city on the western coast of Asia Minor—ousted himself from power by abdicating his throne. Then he began preaching democratic ideals. The newly converted are always the loudest protesters, aren’t they?
The enlightenment of this reformed former dictator induced a general expulsion of tyrants in and around Ionia and, to protect themselves from any attempt to reimpose tyranny, the newly freed cities formed an alliance called the Ionian League. This alliance subsequently launched a campaign to oust all tyrants anywhere nearby who would not step down of their own accord, even if the local populace did not necessarily want to be democratized. Having provoked this revolution to some extent, the Athenians joined in the crusade for involuntary independence, not bringing the Ionian League any massive support—Herodotus says they supplied only a few ships—but they had clearly made it known where they stood ideologically, on the side of freedom and demokratia.
Gathering its forces, the Ionian League marched north in 498 BCE and, against all odds, captured Sardis, now the capital of Darius’ Lydian satrapy, which brought them into direct conflict with the Persian Empire. Although hailed as liberators at first, amidst their victory celebrations following the defeat of the “tyrant,” they burned Sardis to the ground—accidents do happen!—and that turned popular opinion against them. Indeed, furious at such wanton vandalism perpetrated in the course of their “liberation,” the Lydians summoned the Persians back, and Darius who knew a good excuse for war when he heard one bore down hard on the Ionians.
Soon thereafter in a battle near the Ionian city of Ephesus, the Persian army defeated the Ionian League and forced it to disband. Aristagoras left the rebellion in disgust and fled to northern Greece where he was assassinated. With typical efficiency, the Persians finished off their struggling foe by besieging Aristagoras’ hometown Miletus. When the city finally fell in 494 BCE, the Persian army sacked it with savage vengeance in return for the burning of Sardis. The Ionian revolt was now officially history.
And suddenly liberty didn’t look so good. Many of the free-thinkers and their professors and colleagues who had sparked the Ionian Revolution by introducing this new-fangled physics and philosophical questioning were compelled to leave town by sundown. More than one went to Athens—their natural ties of kinship and ideological sympathies with the Athenians led them there—and that, in turn, drew westward the jaundiced eye of the Persian king. War between Persia and Greece was all but inevitable at this point.
III. The First Persian War (492-490 BCE)
But despite all that and all his political excuses and official declarations of war, the real reason Darius attacked Greece is far from clear. It can’t be to seize the riches of Athens. There weren’t any. It’s true Darius needed to conquer something, since he’d overseen little expansion of Persian domain after by now more than two decades on the throne. It was indeed a Persian king’s right—his obligation, in fact—to enslave some populace as a demonstration of Persian might. But why Greece? It offered little per se. Perhaps, Darius saw the Athenians as standing in the way of his westward progress to the far richer lands of Sicily and Italy. Whatever his reason, the Ionian Revolt gave him all the pretext he needed to move his forces against Greece. Those democracy-loving Athenians had been most disobedient and disrespectful, and they needed to be punished.
Early in the spring of 490 BCE, as soon as travel by sea was possible—sudden and intense winter storms arise so often in the eastern Mediterranean that in antiquity it wasn’t safe to cross open water from October to March—Darius led a naval expedition westward through the islands of the Aegean Sea (between Asia Minor and Greece). While not a large naval force, it was significantly greater than any the Greeks could outfit at that time. Thus, the king’s forces met little resistance crossing the sea, as they aimed for a landing at Marathon, a small community northeast of Athens. The Greeks knew the Persian navy was coming, but because most feared the size and scope of the Persian forces bearing down on them—even the consummate warrior-state of Greece, the Spartans, found an excuse not to join the battle—the Athenians were left virtually all on their own to face the onslaught of Darius and his naval fury.
The Greeks had one advantage, however, that the Persians did not: Greece itself, and especially the topography of Marathon which was not conducive for mounting the sort of overwhelming attack the king had planned. Nevertheless, the Persian navy landed and began debarking its forces in spite of fierce Athenian resistance. The ensuing Battle of Marathon was long and hard-fought—many Athenians died that day and their immense communal tomb still stands where they were buried near the battlefield—but, all in all, it turned out much as the Athenians had planned and hoped. The bulky Persian forces, accustomed to fighting on the flat, sweeping plains of the Near East, were never able to gain a real foothold and create effective military formations on the choppy turf of Marathon. In sum, Greece, as much as anything, saved the Greeks.
As the battle progressed, the Athenians ultimately gained the advantage, chasing the invaders down to the beach, and even inflicted damage on some of the Persians’ ships as they headed back out to sea. A famous Athenian courier Phidippides—or Philippides, his exact name is unclear—raced home from the site of the battle at record speed. So excited at the Greeks’ victory, when he reached Athens, he was able to say only “We won!” and died. Phidippides’ run is commemorated today in the race named for the site of the battle. The distance from Marathon to Athens is, of course, just over twenty-six miles.
The spirits of the Greeks, particularly the Athenians, soared. They had beaten not only the Persians but the odds. And a glorious day it was, but only a moment’s thrill, for they knew that Darius had hardly brought the full weight of the Persian Empire to bear on them. If he had, it’s not likely they could have withstood the assault. Besides, Greece itself had really saved them and that lay at the heart of the imperious god-king’s miscalculation, the tyrant’s conviction that the stiff-backed, free-thinking Athenians would surely retreat in the face of such an overwhelming force. When all a person knows is slaves and satraps, he comes to expect that a beating will break, not stiffen, a person’s back.
From almost the moment the battle was over, the Greeks also knew that the rebuff at Marathon, a fleeting insult at best, would in the long run serve only to make the king all the angrier and more resolved to crush them and, when he came back as he was bound to do, he would not make the same mistake twice. Next time he’d bring everything he had against them to ensure their defeat, destruction and eternal humiliation. At that moment, only the gods knew he never would, that in his stead would come upon the Greeks a foe who was even more determined and bitterer than the old king, Darius’ son and heir Xerxes.
IV. The Second Persian War (481-479 BCE)
A. 490-481 BCE: The Decade between the Wars
Though inevitable and clearly a direct consequence of the First Persian War, the next collision between Greek and Persian forces was forestalled for almost a decade by events which unfolded in both Greece and Persia.
In Athens, an important new leader arose named Themistocles. Nursed on Athens’ burgeoning democracy, Themistocles was part of a new generation of Athenians skilled at using its new types of law to his personal benefit. For instance, among the reforms introduced with the institution of democracy two decades earlier was a provision known as “ostracism,” a procedure for removing individuals unfriendly to the new Athenian government without having to execute them or instigate family feuds or internecine bloodshed. In an ostracism an assembly of citizens was called and, if more than six thousand votes were cast against one man in a secret ballot taken on ostraca—ostraca means in Greek “broken pieces of clay pottery”; these functioned as the ancient equivalent of waste paper—that man was exiled from Athens for ten years, but peaceably and without retribution to his relatives, friends or estate. Themistocles used this procedure to remove several of his political foes from power and, thus, rose to prominence in the city.
Meanwhile, back in Persia Darius was determined to get revenge on those wretched Greeks who had stood in the way of his divine imperative to rule the world. In the years following the First Persian War, he began gathering a stronger force than before but, before he could march on Greece a second time, the satrapy of Egypt revolted (486 BCE). Forced to turn his attention to the Egyptians, he was about to march his great force against them when he unexpectedly died.
His son Xerxes (r. 486-465 BCE) succeeded in ascending to the throne but then could not march against the Greeks immediately, because he had to spend the first two years of his reign suppressing the revolt in Egypt. Worse yet, while the new king was off in Egypt, the Babylonians revolted (482 BCE). It proved a serious and fatal mistake on their part, for Xerxes put an end to both uprisings with typical Persian dispatch and carnage. By early 481 BCE, with his kingdom and kingship secure, the young Persian king could at last turn his attention to the Greeks and the requittal of his father’s sullied honor. Assembling his forces, he marched to Asia Minor in the spring of that year and began making preparations to invade the Greek mainland.
In the meantime back in Greece, the 480’s produced yet another surprise. In 483 BCE workers in the Laurian mines of Attica (the area around Athens) opened up one of the richest veins of silver ever found there. Money poured into the city, at least one hundred talents, several fortunes by the standard of the day. Conservative, aristocratic elements in the Athenian government proposed distributing the money equally among the people, but Themistocles, now the head of the more liberal and forward-thinking faction, suggested building a new navy of ships called triremes, fast battle-cruisers of innovative design. Ultimately, Themistocles won the day—in large part by ostracizing his main political foe—and a new Athenian fleet was constructed, just in time for Xerxes’ arrival.
B. The Second Persian War
In May of the next year (480 BCE), Xerxes and his immense army left Sardis and headed north to the Hellespont (the straits between Europe and Asia). There, the Persian navy joined the King and, in order to facilitate the crossing, Xerxes’ engineers had huge ropes constructed which they used to tie old ships together in a straight line across the narrow waters. Then they built a road over the top of these ships, in Herodotus’ words, “paving the sea.” But before Xerxes could lead his land forces over this “boat-bridge,” strong winds and currents swept it downstream. The king was furious and, like the despot he was—and the god he believed he was!—he ordered his official whippers to flog the winds and chain the waters of the Hellespont for flouting his royal will. That is, after all, what any self-respecting king does when confronted with a rebellious slave: get out the whips, fire the brands and start reciting curses.
Relishing the absurdity of the king’s inflated ego, Herodotus dramatizes the scene, purporting to quote the very words which Xerxes ordered his whipsmen to pronounce as they punished the dire strait:
Sour water, the lord inflicts this justice here, for you have done him wrong without his ever having hurt you once. Indeed King Xerxes will go over you. Your feelings do not matter. It’s right for no one on the earth to sacrifice to you. You are a muddy, salty stream.
Xerxes rebuilt his boat-bridge, and to this second effort the forces of nature were indeed more compliant—perhaps the punishment actually worked!—and so the Persians “marched” across the Hellespont. Xerxes’ army was so large it took a full seven days and nights to move all of his forces to the other side. In fact, according to Herodotus, there were over five million people—this accounting shows his merchant mind at work—but he adds drily that this figure includes “prostitutes and bakers.”
1. Xerxes’ Passage Through Greece
Hugging the coast so the navy could stay close by for protection, the Persian army passed easily through northern Greece. Indeed, the majority of cities in the area capitulated to the Great King—the ancient Greeks had a verb for “capitulating to the Persians,” “to medize” (that is, “go Persian”) which recalls their confusion of Medes and Persians—especially when the northern Greeks saw the size and scope of his forces. But like his father, Xerxes’ passage was made complicated and perilous, not by the Greeks, but Greece itself. Northern Greece consists mostly of rough terrain, rocky and mountainous, and there were many Persian lives lost and ships sunk as Xerxes’ forces wound their way south.
Given the dual nature of this expedition moving both by sea and land, the Persian army at one point along their journey south had no choice but to follow an inlet which led them to a narrow pass called Thermopylae—literally “the Hot Gates” because there were hot springs in the surrounding cliffs—it was an area the Greeks knew well. Seeing that the Persians would have to march through this cramped passage which allowed no more than a few men to walk abreast, the Greek commanders decided to try to make a stand there. If they stood any chance against the mighty army of the king, it would be in a place like this where he would not be able to marshal all his forces at once against them. They decided at the same time to confront the Persian navy near there along the coast, where hazardous waters might lessen the advantage the king’s great number of ships provided him. And so it did. A great storm blew up and destroyed a third of Xerxes’ navy as it was stationed in the straits that lead to Athens.
Thus, the stage was set for the famous Battle of Thermopylae (480 BCE). Because the Persians’ land forces were prevented from advancing by their Greek counterpart which had stationed itself in the narrows, it meant their navy—even after all the disasters it had encountered, it still outnumbered the Greek naval forces by two to one—could not proceed to Athens either. Having no other option, the Persians tried for three days in succession to push their way through, but the stubborn Greeks resisted and repulsed them over and over. The tactic of using Mother Nature as an ally had worked brilliantly for the Greeks ten years before at Marathon and so it did again, and would, no doubt, have continued to do so indefinitely, if it had not been for Human Nature.
When the Persians saw that force was not going to prevail, they resorted to deceit. From a traitorous native who knew the terrain, they learned about a trail that wound around the pass. Xerxes’ elite guard—they were called “The Immortals” because, whenever one died, another immediately replaced him—followed this turncoat to the other end of the pass and led a surprise attack on the Greeks’ rear guard. After Leonidas, the Spartan king in charge of the Greek forces at Thermopylae, saw that he and his men had been caught in a trap, he dismissed everyone except for three hundred of his best fighters, all Spartan volunteers who chose to stay with their king and forestall the Persian advance as long as they could, while the rest of the Greek army withdrew to Athens.
With nothing to lose at this point, knowing full well they were going to die, Leonidas and his three-hundred Spartans advanced out of the protection of the narrow pass and, because they were superb warriors—Spartans like Leonidas spent most of their lives training for combat—they inflicted heavy losses on the Persians. When at last they retreated, exhausted from continuous fighting, the Persian army closed in on them, and the Spartans died fighting to a man. The Greek poet Simonides composed an epitaph of unparalleled simplicity and beauty to honor these valiant warriors:
Stranger, tell the Spartans: here we stayed.
When they gave the order, we obeyed.
Thermopylae was, in the end, hardly a victory for the Greeks, but it showed Xerxes—just as Marathon had shown Darius—that conquering Greece was not going to be easy. Besides bolstering patriotism, the courageous self-sacrifice of Leonidas and his men won the Greeks two significant advantages. First, it bought them the time necessary to reorganize and assemble their forces for the great and decisive and inevitable sea-battle to come, what had to happen when such great navies were brought into such close proximity. Second and more important, it gave them a chance to prepare for Xerxes’ invasion of Attica which by now was inevitable, too.
2. The Battle of Salamis
With Thermopylae behind him, nothing much stood between the king and the city he so hated, in fact, nothing at all after Thebes “medized,” the only remaining Greek city-state of any significance blocking his passage south. Xerxes could now fulfill his father’s mission to capture Athens and, with that, avenge the Ionians’ destruction of Sardis, Darius’ humiliation at Marathon and the many insults his dignity and divinity had suffered at the hands of these insufferable Greeks who resisted reason and the fate everyone knew was theirs.
And so he did, with vicious anger—he seized Athens, which the Greeks had evacuated, and torched most of the city, including the old wooden Temple of Athena on the Acropolis (an upcropping of rock at the center of the city). Watching Athens burn must have given him a great sense of satisfaction. But sequestered and crowded on an island nearby, the Athenians saw it, too, and now had their own reason for revenge.
In many ways, what happens next, what might be called “Xerxes’ folly,” plays out like a Greek tragedy, in which the central character rises to his greatest glory only to fall precipitously to doom and despair. While this perception of the situation is surely due, at least in part, to the sensibilities of the ancient Greeks who constitute our primary sources for the Persian Wars and who were weaned on tragic drama—no doubt, they couldn’t help but see this moment in history as a piece of theatre—there’s no doubt, either, that the king’s momentary triumph in Greece was short-lived and his peripeteia (a term for a sudden “change of fortune” in a play) comes as abruptly as that of any character in tragedy. And like the great figures of the Greek stage who often move from joy to utter despair within the space of a single scene, Herodotus’ narrative gives the impression Xerxes should have seen the imminent disaster lurking in the wings, awaiting its cue to enter, his fate.
Sitting in a smoldering Athens, the king faced several major problems. First, Attica offered him little more than personal satisfaction. Greece, in general, is not a rich land agriculturally, and Xerxes had five million or so mouths to feed. Furthermore, the delay at Thermopylae had given the Athenians the time to take what stores of food they had with them in flight. So, in ensuring he didn’t repeat his father’s mistake and underestimate the resistance which the Greeks might put up, he had brought with him an immense expedition, unprecedented in its size, according to Herodotus at least. But that created a different problem for Xerxes from his father’s woes, how to feed and house so many soldiers—and prostitutes and bakers.
Worse yet, it was getting late in the year—those costly delays, again!—and the storms of winter would soon make the seas around Greece impassable. If that happened, the Persian navy, possibly even the king’s own person, would be forced to winter in Greece, far too primitive and dangerous a land to harbor his royal presence. If he wanted a warm bath, no doubt, he’d have to go all the way back to Thermopylae.
All this meant that the Greeks, though exiled from their homes, held one high card: since Xerxes was eager to resolve this conflict quickly, they could pick the time and place of the final confrontation. They decided to assemble the full complement of their sea forces near the island of Salamis close to Athens and face the Persian navy in the straits between the island and the mainland. Either entrance to the Bay of Salamis is narrow, which would force the Persian ships to break formation as they entered. That would give the Greeks’ nimble but outnumbered triremes a better chance of defeating the Persian fleet since they didn’t have to meet it all at once.
Believing that, after the Greeks saw for themselves his superior forces which were greater in both size and strength, they would buckle under and retreat, Xerxes had a throne set up on the cliffs overlooking the bay where he could sit and watch the conflict to come. From that commanding view, he ordered his navy to advance into the narrows and the Battle of Salamis began. As ship after ship from the king’s armada passed through the straits into the bay, entering only a few at a time because that’s all that could fit, the Greeks picked them off. Still worse for the Persians, those ships which saw the trap and tried to turned around and escape ran headlong into their fellow galleys entering the bay. More than one Persian cruiser was rammed and sunk by one of its own comrades that day. So many of Xerxes’ men drowned in the waters around Salamis that for weeks, even months after the battle, Persian bodies were washing up on the shores near Athens. And the king watched it all unfold sitting in his front-row seat above the bay and, no doubt, cursed these “sour” waters, too.
3. The Battle of Plataea
But even after suffering such a massacre, the Persians’ forces still outnumbered those of the Greeks, by as much as three to one. Xerxes, however, had had enough of these western upstarts and, afraid that they might take the offensive and try to prevent his return to Persia, he ordered the Persian navy to retreat to Asia Minor. The lesson of Cambyses’ over-appetite for conquest, the grim prelude to his assassination, surely preyed on Xerxes’ mind. After all, for a conqueror whose reach exceeds his grasp, more danger lies at home than abroad. So, leaving behind a good part of his land force, not a negligible army by any means but nothing like that with which he had launched himself into Greece, Xerxes retreated quickly eastward, returning to Sardis and eventually the safety of Persepolis.
In the king’s stead, one of his generals Mardonius stayed behind in Greece to command the remaining Persian army. He and his forces withdrew from Athens and wintered in Thebes, the safer, “medized” city of the north. When the fighting season opened in the spring of the next year (479 BCE), the Persians prepared to mount yet another assault on Athens. As Mardonius advanced, once again the Athenians were forced to withdraw from Attica. But the Persian general had learned an important lesson from Marathon and Salamis, not to fight Greeks in constricted areas. So he countered by withdrawing and waiting near the wider plains of Thebes, forcing the Greeks to meet him on land, on open terrain, on Persian terms for once.
They did and the result was the Battle of Plataea—Plataea was a small town between Thebes and Athens—but in this confrontation the Persians miscalculated yet once more. Misconstruing one of the Greek army’s movements as a cowardly retreat, Mardonius ordered his troops to attack, believing he had an advantage, which he did not. After a hard fight, the Persian line eventually collapsed, and Mardonius died bravely leading his forces himself. What remained of Xerxes’ army fled home to Persia by any means it could. The Greeks rejoiced and celebrated their victory by besieging Thebes, capturing it and killing everyone who’d “medized,” for now they were free to do whatever democracy demanded.
V. Conclusion: Herodotus and the Persian Wars
The Persian Wars mark an important turning point not only in Greek history but, indeed, in the course of all European civilization. First and foremost, because of its victory Greece was saved from the threat of external rule and could develop on its own. Handed this independence, the Greeks chose to follow a path which forever changed the course of modern life. Without their success in this conflict, they would, no doubt, never have had the liberty, means or conviction to invent, discover or create all they did: not just history but philosophy, science, drama, art, architecture, indeed most of the cornerstones of modern civilization.
Another consequence of this victory, less immediate but equally important, was that it prevented the Persians from dominating the lands to the west of Greece—as noted above, it’s likely the fertile fields of Italy and Sicily, not the rough dust of Greece, were the real target of Xerxes’ imperial designs—and there a tiny settlement called Rome had just begun to sprout, at that moment hardly a dot on the map, but it would later develop into a crucial player in the history of the West. Rome won freedom, too, in the Persian Wars, without ever fielding a single fighter. It’s impossible to imagine how vastly different our world would be if Persia had conquered or exterminated the Romans before they’d ever had a chance to grow.
Thus, the Greeks laid the groundwork for later Western culture, and Herodotus the foundation for understanding it. If so many of his facts look suspect or even prove incorrect, if he sometimes seems to set speculation and scandal over sober criticism and science, before condemning him we should recall that he founded this entire enterprise called history, a discipline which still bears the name he gave it. His critics should also bear in mind it’s only because Herodotus set us on this path that we can even scorn his methods in the first place. To this most uncommon “common man,” we owe an enormous collective debt. He is the Father of History—period!